Pets  and  Disasters

United States Search and Rescue Task Force

Our pets enrich our lives in more ways than we can count.  In turn, they depend on us for their safety and well-being.   Here's how you can be prepared to protect your pets when disaster strikes.

Be Prepared with a Disaster Plan

The best way to protect your family from the effects of a disaster is to have a disaster plan. If you are a pet owner, that plan must include your pets.  Being prepared can save their lives.

Different disasters require different responses.  But whether the disaster is a hurricane or a hazardous spill, you may have to evacuate your home.

In the event of a disaster, if you must evacuate, the most important thing you can do to protect your pets is to evacuate them, too.  Leaving pets behind, even if you try to create a safe place for them, is likely to result in their being injured, lost, or worse.  So prepare now for the day when you and your pets may have to leave your home.

1. Have a Safe Place To Take Your Pets

Remember that Red Cross disaster shelters cannot accept pets because of states' health and safety regulations and other considerations.  Service animals who assist people with disabilities are the only animals allowed in Red Cross shelters.  It may be difficult, if not impossible, to find shelter for your animals in the midst of a disaster, so plan ahead.  Do not wait until disaster strikes to do your research.

  • Contact hotels and motels outside your immediate area to check policies on accepting pets and restrictions on number, size, and species.  Ask if “no pet” policies could be waived in an emergency.   Keep a list of “pet friendly” places, including phone numbers, with other disaster information and supplies.  If you have notice of an impending disaster, call ahead for reservations.
  • Ask friends, relatives, or others outside the affected area whether they could shelter your animals.  If you have more than one pet, they may be more comfortable if kept together, but be prepared to house them separately.
  • Prepare a list of boarding facilities and veterinarians who could shelter animals in an emergency; include 24-hour phone numbers.
  • Ask local animal shelters if they provide emergency shelter or foster care for pets in a disaster.  Animal shelters may be overburdened caring for the animals they already have as well as those displaced by a disaster, so this should be your last resort.

2. Assemble a Portable Pet Disaster Supplies Kit

Whether you are away from home for a day or a week, you'll need essential supplies.  Keep items in an accessible place and store them in sturdy containers that can be carried easily (duffel bags, covered trash containers, etc.).  Your pet disaster supplies kit should include:

  • Medications and medical records (stored in a waterproof container) and a first aid kit.
  • Sturdy leashes, harnesses, and/or carriers to transport pets safely and ensure that your animals can't escape.
  • Current photos of your pets in case they get lost.
  • Food, potable water, bowls, cat litter/pan, and can opener.
  • Information on feeding schedules, medical conditions, behavior problems, and the name and number of your veterinarian in case you have to foster or board your pets.
  • Pet beds and toys, if easily transportable.

3. Know What To Do As a Disaster Approaches

  • Often, warnings are issued hours, even days, in advance.  At the first hint of disaster, act to protect your pet.
  • Call ahead to confirm emergency shelter arrangements for you and your pets.
  • Check to be sure your pet disaster supplies are ready to take at a moment's notice.
  • Bring all pets into the house so that you won't have to search for them if you have to leave in a hurry.
  • Make sure all dogs and cats are wearing collars and securely fastened, up-to-date identification.  Attach the phone number and address of your temporary shelter, if you know it, or of a friend or relative outside the disaster area.  You can buy temporary tags or put adhesive tape on the back of your pet's ID tag, adding information with an indelible pen.

You may not be home when the evacuation order comes.  Find out if a trusted neighbor would be willing to take your pets and meet you at a prearranged location.  This person should be comfortable with your pets, know where your animals are likely to be, know where your pet disaster supplies kit is kept, and have a key to your home.  If you use a pet sitting service, they may be available to help, but discuss the possibility well in advance.

Planning and preparation will enable you to evacuate with your pets quickly and safely.  But bear in mind that animals react differently under stress.  Outside your home and in the car, keep dogs securely leashed.  Transport cats in carriers.  Don't leave animals unattended anywhere they can run off.  The most trustworthy pets may panic, hide, try to escape, or even bite or scratch.  And, when you return home, give your pets time to settle back into their routines.  Consult your veterinarian if any behavior problems persist.

Evacuation Tips for Pets

Take your pets with you. Many people mistakenly leave their companion animals behind when they evacuate during an emergency, thinking their pet's instincts will prevent them from being harmed. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Companion animals depend on us for their survival, much as children do.

•Identify your pet.  Securely fasten a current identification tag to your pet’s collar.  If you face evacuation, it is a good idea to attach to the collar the phone number of a friend or family member who is well out of disaster range.  That way, anyone who finds your pet will be able to reach a person who knows how to contact you.

•Photograph your pet.  Carry a photo of your pet for identification purposes.

•Transport your pet safely.  Use secure pet carriers and keep your pet on a leash or in a harness.

•Find a pet-friendly hotel.  Because most emergency shelters do not admit pets, call hotels in a safe location and ask if you can bring your pet.  If the hotel has a no-pets policy, ask the manager if the hotel can waive the policy during the disaster.

•Foster your pet.  If you and your pet cannot stay together, call friends, family members, veterinarians, or boarding kennels in a safe area to arrange safe foster care.

•Have supplies on hand.  Be sure to pack a week’s worth of food, water, medication, cat litter, or any other supplies your pet needs on a regular basis.

•Plan your evacuation and leave in plenty of time.  Do not wait until the last minute to evacuate.  When rescue officials come to your door, they may not allow you to take your pets with you.

•Carry a list of emergency telephone numbers with you.  This should include your veterinarian, local animal control, local animal shelters, the Red Cross, and any other individual or group you might need to contact during the disaster.

Evacuation Tips for Farm Animals

•Evacuate animals as soon as possible.  Be ready to leave once the evacuation is ordered.

•Arrange your evacuation route in advance.

•Arrange for a place to house your animals.

•Plan an alternate evacuation route.  Alternate routes should be mapped out in case the planned route becomes inaccessible.

•Set up safe transportation.  Make sure that you have available trucks, trailers, or other vehicles suitable for transporting farm animals.  And arrange to have experienced animal handlers and drivers to transport them.

•Take your supplies with you.  At evacuation sites, you should have, or be able to readily obtain, food, water, veterinary care, handling equipment, and generators if necessary.

•Work with the state department of agriculture.  If your animals cannot be evacuated, your state department of agriculture can provide on-farm oversight.

Evacuation Tips For Other Pets


Birds should be transported in a secure travel cage or carrier.  In cold weather, wrap a blanket over the carrier and warm up the car before placing birds inside.   During warm weather, carry a plant mister to mist the birds' feathers periodically.   Do not put water inside the carrier during transport.  Provide a few slices of fresh fruits and vegetables with high water content.  Have a photo for identification and leg bands.  If the carrier does not have a perch, line it with paper towels and change them frequently.  Try to keep the carrier in a quiet area.  Do not let the birds out of the cage or carrier.


Snakes can be transported in a pillowcase but they must be transferred to more secure housing when they reach the evacuation site.   If your snakes require frequent feedings, carry food with you.  Take a water bowl large enough for soaking as well as a heating pad.  When transporting house lizards, follow the same directions as for birds.

Pocket Pets

Small mammals (hamsters, rabbits, gerbils, etc.) should be transported in secure carriers suitable for maintaining the animals while sheltered.  Take bedding materials, food bowls, and water bottles.

A Final Word

If you must evacuate, do not leave your animals behind.  Evacuate them to a prearranged safe location if they cannot stay with your during the evacuation period.   If there is a possibility that disaster may strike while you are out of the house, there are precautions you can take to increase your pets' chances of survival, but they are not a substitute for evacuating with your pets.

Through Hell and High Water:
Disasters and the Human-Animal Bond

Randall Lockwood, Ph.D.
Vice President/Training Initiatives
The Humane Society of the United States
2100 L Street NW, Washington, DC 20037

It is an unusual experience for me to be asked to speak on such a specific topic as “Why animal owners will risk danger to themselves and not evacuate disaster areas without assurance of their animals' well-being”. As a former academic, it sounded very much like the essay questions I used to pose to my students in a course on the Psychology of the Human/Animal Bond. It's a very good question, the kind that tends to elicit a quick and overly simplistic response like “because they love them”, but which, upon reflection, raises a great many deeper questions. It is also a very important question, because it has serious implications for the safety and well-being of thousands of people and animals.

Dr. Mansmann's request that I consider this question came at a very appropriate time. As part of our commitment to cooperative training with the American Red Cross, we had been asked to prepare materials on the implications of human-animal relations for the Red Cross' Disaster Institute training. We will be conducting our first such session in Maryland next week.

Disasters challenge everything that we use to define ourselves as human. We live most of our lives thinking that we are in control, and that our powers of reason will see us through. Then a fire, flood or violent storm forces us to recognize our frailties and limitations. Disasters can force us into actions that are primitive and infantile or noble and altruistic. They bring out the best in some people, and the worst in others. Exactly how anyone will respond to an emergency is usually unpredictable, but we know that there will always be a collision of reason and emotion, of logic and sentiment.

Although I have ridden out many hurricanes and several earthquakes, I have been fortunate to never have been the victim of a disaster, but one incident a few years ago made me very aware of what goes on in our minds in such a crisis. I was sitting near the fire in our Long Island cottage. My cats were sleeping on their cat perch and my mother, who was staying with us while recovering from pneumonia, was reading in an easy chair.

The gentle crackle in the fireplace was suddenly replaced by a roar like an airplane 10 feet overhead. I recognized the unmistakable sound of a chimney fire. A quick rush outside confirmed that flames were shooting about 15 feet out of the chimney as large chunks of flaming creosote were being hurled to the roof. Pausing for a second or two to order my priorities, I got my mother out, called 911, gathered up the cats and took them to safety and returned for the unfinished manuscript of my first book. Then I left.

Fortunately a foot of snow on the roof prevented any damage. The fire department checked for any residual embers and prepared to leave as my wife pulled into the driveway. When she heard of my disaster plan and evacuation priorities (mother, cats, book, self), she expressed great relief that she had been spared the opportunity of learning where she fit in those priorities.

We have all experienced or witnessed situations where emotion and sentiment collide with reason and common sense. Firefighters must routinely deal with the problem of victims seeking to return to a burning building to rescue a person or pet or even a cherished photograph or keepsake. In part it is that, that really makes us human, our ability to form such strong attachments to others that we may place their welfare above our own.

Let's return to the original question, “Why will animal owners risk danger to themselves and not evacuate disaster areas without assurance of their animals' well-being.” There is no doubt that this assertion is often true, based on the first hand accounts of many people who have assisted in responding to a variety of disasters. This has also been supported by articles reflecting on the aftermath of recent emergencies. (1).

This problem has also been identified in formal studies of disaster planning. Linnabary et. al. (1993) give an analysis of emergency evacuation plans for the horses of Madison County, Kentucky. (2). This county includes the Lexington-Bluegrass Army Depot, a storage site for nerve gas and blistering agents scheduled for destruction. Even in this area where horses are a major economic resource, more than a third of the farms in the area maintained horses purely for personal pleasure, and approximately 80% had dogs and cats as well.

In reviewing evacuation plans in the event of a chemical emergency, owners were asked to put priorities on the actions they would take given 12 hours to leave. The horse owners' greatest concern was family safety, followed by concern for their horses. Eighty one percent of horse-owners surveyed said that their horses were important in their decision to leave . In choosing which horses to evacuate, the number one priority given was sentimental value only, cited by 46% of the owners, including many owner/managers of commercial operations with valuable livestock.

These results support the concerns raised by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in its review of evacuation planning for the Three Mile Island incident (3). That report noted (p. 129): ” One of the most troublesome issues faced by risk county planning teams involved their counties' non-human populations…Planners had to choose between a strategy that called for leaving animals in the risk areas if an evacuation were ordered, and one that called for taking them along. Adoption of either strategy entailed problems.”

This report points out the key issue raised by our opening question. Most of the agencies and individuals that prepare for disaster are skilled and experienced in logistics, in moving people and supplies and coordinating the efforts of diverse bureaucracies, but they are often unprepared for dealing with people one-on-one, especially when their behavior may seem irrational or even life-threatening. The TMI report concludes (p.140): “Preparedness officials and planners are comfortable when dealing with official agencies and organizations -‘the police will do this,' etc. – and materials – ‘200 buses,' etc. They are uncomfortable with matters involving public behavior -‘will people comply?… bring pets? …leave early? … follow instructions? … respond to evacuation orders?”

So we know that the assertion of our opening question is true – but why is it true, particularly with respect to horses? The twenty-plus years of literature on the psychology of the human-animal bond have repeatedly demonstrated that we interact with our companion animals as members of the family. While most people involved with horses have always had deep respect and affection for their animals, every indication is that, from the standpoint of the human/animal bond, horses have become or are rapidly becoming, true companion animals.

Even the demographics of horse ownership compiled by the AVMA portray a closer relationship between people and their horses than at any time in the past (4). In 1991 horses were found in 2% of American households owning 4.9 million animals, down from 2.8% of households with 7 million horses in 1983. About half of these households own only one horse. Horse owners parallel the demographics of dog and cat owners, with most being young, middle and older parents. The notion that many people have companion animals instead of children has never been true. Companion animal ownership is primarily a phenomenon of families, and these animals are usually seen as “best friends” or as true family members. Today this is often as true for horses as it has been for dogs and cats.

Another indication of the greater level of bonding lies in the demographics of the horse population itself. More than 33% of America's horses are 11 or more years old, compared with about 26% in 1987. We are also seeing a well-documented trend toward a greater commitment to individual horses (5). This trend includes increased use of state-of-the-art diagnostic tools and the election of surgeries for companion horses that were once reserved for only the most valuable animals. Although the number of horses in the country has declined, the number being treated with the special resources of university veterinary schools has risen consistently since 1988. Also there has been an increase in expenditures for veterinary care of foals and very old horses, traditionally animals of lesser financial, but greater emotional value.

Knowing that our beginning assumption is true, and is likely to become even truer as horses increasingly become primarily companion animals, what should those of us concerned about equine rescue be doing?

The first step is planning. I need not preach to the choir here. Every agency dealing with disaster preparedness should by now recognize how essential it is to anticipate the needs of animals and their owners in drafting disaster plans. Excellent examples have been produced by many of those in this group. (6).

Second, we need to increase our efforts to impress upon animal owners the need to have personal disaster plans in place. This means preparing and distributing materials for owners, clubs, stables, farmers and commercial establishments.

Finally, when disaster strikes, we must be ready to be responsive and sympathetic. When responding to the needs of people's animals, we are not just dealing with property that may or may not be of significant economic value. We are dealing with fellow creatures capable of pain, fear, panic, depression and post-traumatic stress. We are dealing with individuals who are included in that expanded circle of caring… who are members of the family who we would brave hell or high water to save.

Disasters are the great levelers in the literal and figurative sense. They often bring rich and poor, human and animal, to a common state. Disasters teach us that we are all in this together and by working together we increase the chances that we all will survive.

1. Tamara Chism Duncan. 1994. “Reflections on the flood,” Equus, 206: 53-57; Betsey Sikora Siino, 1994. “Disaster,” Horse Illustrated, Feb: 66-71.
2. Robert D. Linnabary, John C. New, Barbara M. Vogt, Carol Griffith-Davies and Lee Williams, 1993. “Emergency evacuation of horses – A Madison County, Kentucky survey,” Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 13(3): 153-158.
3. Federal Emergency Management Agency. 1990. Evacuation Planning in the TMI Accident. FEMA Report RS 2.8.34.
4. American Veterinary Medical Association. 1992. The Veterinary Service Market for Companion Animals.
5. Karen Kopp Du Teil. 1993. “A Growing Commitment to Care”, Equus, 193: 51-61.
6. Richard A. Mansmann, Beverly McCurdy, Kathy O'Connor, Tim Collins, Clark Beckstead and Mike Allen. 1992. “Disaster Planning Model for an Equine Assistance and Evacuation Team, “Equine Veterinary Science, 12(5): 268-271.


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